Alice Blue Gown

Alice in one of her blue gowns.
Alice in one of her blue gowns.

Lucky the girl who has a best-selling song named after her! In this case, the girl was one of the most talked about people of her era, who remained the talk of this town for over seven decades.

“Alice Blue Gown” was written for President Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, a beautiful young girl who was the American equivalent of a princess and whose style signature was her azure blue gowns. The pretty lyrics suggest a demure young woman, but young Alice was quite the opposite, in fact, a perfect terror. The press followed her around to record her much-publicized escapades. She smoked in public (a no-no at that time), jumped fully-clothed into a swimming pool, wore a boa constrictor around her neck and shot at telegraph poles from a moving train. Word of her adventures got back to her father, the President, who said, “I can run the country, or I can control my daughter. I cannot do both.”

Alice’s marriage to the wealthy, handsome congressman from Ohio, Nicholas Longworth III, had a fairy tale quality, at least in the beginning. They had a large imposing townhouse at 2009 Massachusetts Ave. NW, where they threw lavish dinner parties attended by senators, journalists and society ladies. Alice, who was not one to keep her opinions to herself, had devoted friends and fierce enemies, and she is often associated with the saying embroidered on a pillow in her much-visited salon,” If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit by me”

She and Cissy Patterson, a rival for her husband Nick’s affections, were competing hostesses for the top spot in Washington society. Cissy lived just down the street at 15 Dupont Circle NW, now the Washington Club; her brother owned the New York Daily News, so she often put her cutting remarks about Alice in the newspaper. Alice shot back at every opportunity, and to get even with her husband for his infidelities, caused a major scandal by having a well-known affair with Senator Borah, which earned her the moniker “Aurora Borah Alice.”

She could and did verbally slay presidents with one-liners. She said Calvin Coolidge looked like he had been “weaned on a pickle” and dismissed Thomas Dewey as looking like “the little man on the wedding cake,” a comment that many said was so devastating it lost him the presidential election. She told Lyndon Johnson that she wore wide brim hats to his receptions so he couldn’t get close enough to kiss her, and dubbed him “an engaging rogue elephant of a man.” She even took a swipe at her cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, who she described as “two-thirds mush and one-third Eleanor.”

Alice lived to the age of 96, much longer than most of her friends and enemies. People who once vied for invitations to her parties stopped coming to visit. Her granddaughter, who lived with her, would get on the phone and call Alice’s old friends to urge them to come by, because “Gammy” was lonely. As Alice got older, her house fell into such a state of disrepair that the few visitors there were had to pick their way through the poison ivy to get into the house. The salon was full of clutter and torn upholstery, and the living room ceiling looked as if it could fall at any minute. Her granddaughter painted the window sills red and decorated the walls haphazardly with poetry. Every inch of Alice’s bedroom was covered with books, newspapers and knick-knacks, so much so that when she returned home one day and the maid announced that the bedroom had been ransacked by a burglar, Alice said, “How can you tell?” 

Alice reigned as a maven of Washington society through eighteen administrations, from the beautiful, wild young girl in the azure blue gowns to the elegant old lady with a sharp tongue and the signature wide-brimmed hat. While she was still alive, she was referred to as “the other Washington monument” and when she died, “Meet the Press” host Larry Spivak said, “It is extraordinary to become almost mythological in a city of this kind, just by being yourself.”

Donna Evers, devers@eversco.com, is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman owned and run residential real estate firm in the Washington metro area; the proprietor of Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Virginia; and a devoted fan of Washington history.

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Thu, 23 Oct 2014 07:44:03 -0400

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